The controversial head of India's external intelligence agency, Ashok Chaturvedi, has come under the spotlight for a series of embarrassing faux pas, a major handicap when he is meant to keep the country's leaders abreast of events.
His list of public embarrassments has littered the pages of not only the Indian newspapers, but perhaps more embarrassing for the world's largest democracy, Chaturvedi is also becoming the focus of the international press as well.
Prior to being named head of India's intelligence services, the Research and Analysis Wing, known as RAW, Chaturvedi had been described as "serially paranoid and too incompetent to function. And in any other intelligence agency he would probably have been drummed out a long time ago," according to extremely reliable sources, who for obvious reasons asked not to be named.
India's intelligence agency operates on the basis of seniority and time spent in the organization, which has helped Chaturvedi get promoted. He benefited further because his relative, B.K. Chaturvedi, is the Indian cabinet secretary and a member of the promotion panel that selects the head of the intelligence organization.
"Since becoming head of RAW at the start of 2007, the scandal prone Chaturvedi has overseen the systematic dismantling of the organization which appears to be falling apart at the seams, much to the pleasure of the agency's rivals in Pakistan and China," one of the same sources told the Middle East Times.
The list of humiliating gaffes Chaturvedi has incurred in the last year could be turned into a multi-volume novel. In a number of important meetings, Chaturvedi did not even know who he was actually meeting. On one particular occasion, Timothy J. Keating, the commander of the United States Pacific Command made an official trip to India in August 2007 and met a number of senior Indian defense and intelligence chiefs including Chaturvedi. However, Chaturvedi did not seem to know who Keating was, and much to everyone's embarrassment kept referring to Keating as John Negroponte, the U.S. deputy Secretary of State.
In another episode, before leaving on a trip to China in January, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked Chaturvedi for a briefing about his perspectives of the current senior leadership in China. Instead of delegating the task to the China section within RAW, Chaturvedi attempted to put together his own report which talked about Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, the former president and premier respectively, both of whom retired in 2003.
Manmohan Singh was perplexed, to put it mildly, as to why the head of his intelligence agency had such limited intelligence, particularly on a country India needed to keep close tabs on.
Furthermore, Chaturvedi is notorious for his coarse and abrasive manner. Afghan President Hamid Karzai even complained to Manmohan Singh over the way he was spoken to by the RAW chief. According to Afghan sources, Chaturvedi treated Karzai like a servant rather than a head of state and spoke to him while chewing and spitting out tobacco.
Politicians in Nepal are also extremely upset with Chaturvedi, who made a number of visits to the country last December which were all caustically detailed by the Nepalese press. To humiliate Chaturvedi, the media even published the names of all the RAW officers stationed at the Kathmandu embassy.
Nepalese sources claimed that Chaturvedi forced the interim government of Girija Prasad Koirala to award a contract to an Indian firm for a hydropower project. It has also been alleged that Chaturvedi may have financially benefited personally from the deal. Questions have been raised in India as to why the head of an Indian intelligence agency was promoting a commercial company in Nepal.
Chaturvedi has also alienated himself from people within his own organization by ostracizing senior personnel and creating a culture of fear. Such is the level of animosity toward Chaturvedi that it is rumored he will have to leave India once he retires and would be safer seeking asylum in Pakistan. It is for this reason that Chaturvedi has been trying to position his protégé Sanjiv Tripathi to take over his post in an attempt to preempt any retribution.
The Indian intelligence community has dubbed Chaturvedi and Tripathi "Dumb and Dumber" a reference to the Jim Carey film.
Tripathi, like Chaturvedi, has risen in the ranks based, not on his ability, but on the number of years he has been with RAW. Tripathi is an administrator and has no expertise or experience as an intelligence officer. His father-in-law, G.S. Bajpai, was also a head of RAW.
Tripathi is also tainted by "business activities" in Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago. These activities are coming under scrutiny in an internal probe led by G.B.S. Sidhu, a former special secretary within RAW. Sidhu has been tasked to identify corruption within the organization, and his probe is also looking into allegations of sexual harassment, made by a senior member of the organization about a female employee who was allegedly intimidated and coerced into silence.
News of the scandal has reached the office of M K Narayanan, India's National Security Advisor, and persistent rumors from New Delhi's bureaucratic community have suggested that the scandal involves Chaturvedi.
Narayanan is the person Chaturvedi reports directly to, and he has now finally lost all patience with the RAW chief. Narayanan tried to give Chaturvedi the benefit of the doubt for more than a year, but has now realized that he has become an enormous liability and that through him the entire edifice of the organization is crumbling.
"The rumor mill in New Delhi is now spinning out of control that Chaturvedi may become the first head of RAW to be sacked for gross incompetence and negligence before his term expires at the end of 2008," a source told the Middle East Times.
To make matters worse, Chaturvedi and Tripathi have started a dirty tricks campaign against Narayanan to try to weaken his credibility in the hope that he will be sacked instead.
Chaturvedi has also created other fronts of confrontation. He has begun to criticize, challenge and try to undermine the highly influential Pulok Chatterji, secretary to the Prime Minister's Office. By this, he is trying to preempt his own sacking by attempting to sideline Chatterji, who carries enormous influence in New Delhi corridors of power and could force through the RAW chief's dismissal from office.
Mukesh Ambani, one of India's most influential businessmen, has also come under Chaturvedi's ire. Ambani, who is counted among the world's richest men, is often consulted by politicians from across the political divide.
In his criticism of Ambani, Chaturvedi has let it be known that he disapproves of political parties engaging with the commercial industry. Despite his own links with commercial interests in Nepal, Chaturvedi is said to hold strong ideological socialist beliefs hailing from the Cold War era. He is known to dislike the expansion of the economy started by the previous BJP-led government and continued by the Congress-led coalition.
The irony of all this is heightened, however, by the fact that another prominent businessman, Kumarmangalam Birla, was invited to deliver a lecture at the offices of RAW in memory of its founder R.N. Kao.
Security analysts in India believe that Chaturvedi and Tripathi have systematically dismantled, exposed, or damaged the intelligence gathering infrastructure of RAW to such an extent that it will take many years to restore the harm they have done.
Sonia Gandhi's Congress Party and the largest opposition party, the BJP, have both indicated that they would have no objection to Chaturvedi being replaced at the earliest possible opportunity.
Although the problems in neighboring Pakistan appear worse than India's – with politicians being assassinated, frequent suicide bombings, and al-Qaida and the Taliban running loose, the situation in India, with Chaturvedi, is allowing the same dangerous elements to enter the country, the sources said.
Unofficial briefings, originating from Manmohan Singh's office, suggest that the prime minister and his national security adviser, M K Narayanan are exasperated with the incompetent shenanigans of both Chaturvedi and Tripathi. They are concerned with the long-term harm the two are doing, not only to India's secretive intelligence agency, but also to the national security of this growing global power and ally in the war on terror.
The intelligence community in Washington has been aware for some months of the problems that Chaturvedi has created. Their own concerns have been shared with other Western intelligence agencies. But information sharing with RAW has come to a virtual standstill, as the feeling is there is too much to risk in talking to the head of India's intelligence.